Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, is known for two main attractions that draw curious travelers to its shores. One, Kalimantan is Joseph Conrad country -- The land of rivers where his romantic stories of Lord Jim and Tom Lingard, Kaspar Almayer and Axel Heist, took place. It was a much different Borneo in those days but there are still plaques everywhere telling visitors that they were standing where Lord Jim once stood. The second appeal to visitors is that Kalimantan is also home to the only red-haired primates in the world. My interest in Kalimantan? Nothing against Joseph Conrad, but I went for the Orangutans.
Orangutans have always fascinated me. Their expressive faces and early human mannerisms are truly a wonder. And I was finally on my way to their sanctuary. We sailed into the Kumai River and anchored out, all the while I wondered how long it would take to get to the Tanjung Puting National Park, the park which housed the Camp Leaky Orangutan Preserve where they were protected. As it turned out I didn’t have to wait very long. Ambo, our guide, came motoring up and asked us when we would want to see the monkeys. Our group had two choices. We could either go with the slower boat and stay overnight -- food, water, showers and shade all included -- or we could press on and opt for the extended day tour. The hunger, thirst, sweat and exhaustion had already gotten to us – the choice was not a difficult one.
As we slowly made our relaxing trip to the rest site, we heard Mary, another traveler, over the short-wave radio telling us a female orangutan, Princess, had been so infatuated with her purse that there was no stopping the primate from taking it. The Orangutans arms were so long the guide could do nothing to retrieve the shoplifted bag. After tasting the sunscreen, lipstick and mints in Mary’s bag, Princess knew that lipstick went on the lips and sunscreen on the arms. The group laughed so loud I could barely hear mary over the short-wave radio.
After a restless night of sleep, Ambo arrived bright and early the following morning and we were off. The Kumai River was muddy brown and the banks of the river were lined with palm bushes. From Kumai, we shot off into the much smaller Sekonyer River. This small river was named after a Dutch schooner that once sunk into the river. As we continued our journey towards the preserve, the water slowly darkened to a cocoa black and the bank’s vegetation began to change to grasses and trees. Ambo informed us that the rain forest itself was to blame for this strange occurrence – when the rain forest leaves dropped into the water, the tannin chemicals from the foliage turned the river crystal black.
We passed several of the slower boats and heard that they had seen swimming monkeys and water snakes up ahead. The crocodiles that teemed throughout the river were timid around the sounds of our boat engines – this gave other animals of the rain forest a chance to take advantage of the Kumai’s black waters, free from attacks of these ferocious predators.